Born Joseph Lane on February 3, 1956, in Jersey City, New Jersey, Nathan Lane took his stage name from the character Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. He began in stand-up comedy and quickly moved to Broadway, appearing in plays by Terrence McNally, including Love! Valour! Compassion!. Lane's film break was in The Birdcage, in which he starred opposite Robin Williams. He has won Tony Awards for his roles in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Producers.
Born Joseph Lane on February 3, 1956, in Jersey City, New Jersey, Nathan Lane began acting in middle school, and by the time he graduated from St. Peter's Prep high school, he had decided on a career as an actor. Though he was offered a scholarship to study theater at St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia, the stipend provided was not sufficient to live on, so Lane took a series of odd jobs, including bail interviewer, telemarketer and singing messenger, while trying to land acting jobs in New York City. As there was another Joe Lane in the Actors' Equity organization, Lane took the first name of Nathan Detroit, a character he had played in a dinner theater production of Guys and Dolls.
After three years performing stand-up comedy in nightclubs with with Patrick Stack—the duo was known as Stack and Lane—Lane obtained an agent and made appearances on The Merv Griffin Show. In 1982, Lane got a part on the sitcom One of the Boys, featuring Mickey Rooney, Meg Ryan, and Dana Carvey, but the show was canceled after only 13 episodes. He would make his first big splash on Broadway the following year opposite George C. Scott in a revival of Noel Coward's play Present Laughter. The role marked the beginning of Lane's tenure as a fixture on the New York stage.
In 1989, Nathan Lane won a Drama Desk Award and a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for his performance in an off-Broadway production of The Lisbon Traviata, written by Terrence McNally. Lane's portrayal of Mendy, a homosexual man with an obsession with the opera singer Maria Callas, showcased the actor's hilarious and heartwarming understanding of even the most flamboyant characters. The collaboration with McNally marked the beginning of a fruitful actor-director relationship, as Lane would go on to appear in McNally's plays Bad Habits, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, the Tony-winning Love! Valour! Compassion!, and a film version of Frankie and Johnnie.
The talented Nathan Lane avoided being typecast as a gay actor who only plays gay characters, instead essaying a number of diverse roles. With his dinner theater days long behind him, he starred as Nathan Detroit opposite Faith Prince in the tremendously successful revival of Guys and Dolls on Broadway in 1992, earning a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. In 1993, he played a character based on the actor Sid Caesar in Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor, a dramatization of Simon's days working for Caesar's television program Your Show of Shows.
Though Lane was making a huge name for himself on Broadway, his film career was less than fulfilling. Limited to small roles in such films as Ironweed (1987), The Lemon Sisters (1990), the underwhelming Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan vehicle Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), and Life With Mikey, costarring Michael J. Fox, Lane was perhaps best known to film audiences as the voice of Timon the meerkat in Disney's animated hit The Lion King (1994).
In 1994, after being offered the opportunity to reprise his stage role in the film version of McNally's Tony-winning Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997), Lane dropped out of the project, citing scheduling conflicts. This strained his relationship with McNally, who had been so important in Lane's career, but the two eventually reconciled.
In 1996, Nathan Lane made a career breakthrough on the big screen with his scene-stealing performance in The Birdcage, a hit remake of the French farce La Cage aux Folles (1978). Lane and Robin Williams played a gay couple, Albert and Armand, who try to pass as straight to win over the conservative parents (played by Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest) of Armand's son's fiancée. The huge amount of publicity generated by The Birdcage carried over into Lane's next stage production, a 1996 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. His starring turn as Pseudolus (a role originated by the legendary comic Zero Mostel) earned Lane another Drama Desk Award and the highest honor in American Theater, a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical.
A guest star spot on TV's hit comedy Frasier led to the development of a sitcom vehicle for Lane by Frasier's creative team. Encore! Encore!, in which Lane played an opera singer who returns home to his family’s California winery when his voice fails him, won some critical acclaim but failed to find an audience, and was canceled after one season. For the hit film Stuart Little (1999), Lane lent his voice to the character of Snowbell, a white Persian cat and the mouse hero's nemesis.
Lane was busy with film work in 2000; he starred opposite Bette Midler in the critically-lambasted Jacqueline Susann biopic Isn't She Great, played a vaudevillian clown in Kenneth Branagh's musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Love's Labour Lost, and played an alcoholic entertainer in Trixie. He also provided voice-overs for the animated feature Titan A.E. and Disney's animated TV series Teacher's Pet. For this last project, he won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Series.
Lane became the toast of Broadway yet again in 2001 when he took on the role of theatrical impresario Max Bialystock in the mammoth hit The Producers, created by Mel Brooks and based on Brooks' 1969 camp film classic. Lane and his costar, Matthew Broderick, both earned Tony nods for Best Actor in a Musical for their roles, which had been played in the movie by Mostel and Gene Wilder, respectively. Lane captured the statuette, his second Tony and one of a record 12 won by The Producers (out of 15 nominations), including Best Musical.
In 2003, Lane signed on to play a powerful Hollywood agent in the Dream Works comedy Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!!!. The actor went on to perform in such films as Swing Vote (2008) and The Nutcracker (2010), and in such Broadway musicals as The Addams Family (2010, as Gomez Addams) and The Nance (2013, as Chauncey Miles). For his role in The Nance, Lane was nominated for a Tony Award for best performance by an actor in a leading role in a play, but lost to Tracy Letts (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).
Additionally, in 2008, Lane was honored for his contributions to theater with an induction into the Theater Hall of Fame.
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